Over the next seven days, India will have to show that they are good enough to be among the top 24 football teams in Asia. Not used to hobnobbing with the elite—India have played only four finals of this quadrennial competition that began in 1956—it will be an important step in the difficult journey progress in international football entails. Should India make it, they need to top the four-team group or be among the five second-best countries, it will be the first time in their history that they would have qualified for successive finals of the Asian Cup which expanded from 16 to 24 teams in 2015.
Up against them are Cambodia, who have got Japanese expertise to up their game, Afghanistan, whose coach pointed out that India were “lucky” in their last two meetings, and Hong Kong sans eight regulars. All teams are below India in the Fifa rankings but given that Igor Stimac’s men are 19th among 47 teams in Asia, it would be understating the obvious to say that for India the games would not be a pleasant evening stroll at Salt Lake stadium.
Stimac knows all about it having been part of an enduring underdogs’ story from a country known to punch above its weight in sport. “The gap between teams ranked 100 and 180 are very small. We need to be ready, hungry and fully motivated,” he said, ahead of Wednesday’s opener against Cambodia, who at 171, where India were in 2014. India are now ranked 106.
Proof of what Stimac said came in the last SAFF Championship where India had to endure a wobbly start before settling down to win their eighth title. The difference between last October and now is that India have had 45 days to get ready, and barring the injured Rahul Bheke, everyone is available. “I joined the team a bit late. But when I came in, I could gauge the improvement in the squad,” said defender Sandesh Jhingan.
Stimac said India would press from the first minute. “We need to prove that we are favourites and we need to control as well as be ready to handle the counter-attacks.”
If the press yields a goal in the first half-an-hour, controlling the game would be easier, said Stimac. Including Manvir Singh’s 33rd minute goal against Maldives, that’s happened only twice for India in their last eight games. But three of them were friendlies against higher-ranked teams, “against whom we don’t have enough quality yet to score regularly,” games that were part of “our learning process,” said Stimac. “Now, for 90 minutes, there is more strength in our legs and more oxygen in our brains.”
According to the website 11v11.com, India have lost to Cambodia once in four meetings and that was in the qualifiers for the 1968 Asian Cup. The last two meetings, in 2007 and 2017, have ended 6-0 and 3-2 but since then Cambodia have got Keisuke Honda as general manager even as he continues as a player in the Lithuanian league. With a whistle, the former Japan and AC Milan midfielder was at training on Tuesday.
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In forward Chan Vathanaka and France-born midfielder Thierry Bin, Cambodia have players who have played outside the country, in Thailand and Malaysia. Afghanistan have 14-15 who are part of Europe’s lower leagues and also have players based in USA, Australia, Bahrain, Indonesia and Thailand, said Anoosh Dastgir, their 32-year-old head coach who grew up in Delhi’s Tilak Nagar before moving to Holland. Hong Kong—they play Afghanistan in Wednesday’s first match—too have six players in the Chinese Super League, but according to coach Jorn Andersen, they were not released by clubs because of China’s stiff quarantine rules.
Andersen, a former Norway and Eintracht Frankfurt striker, also said two national team players couldn’t travel because of “family reasons”. But the squad has six players from Kitchee FC, who made history by qualifying for the Asian Champions League pre-quarter finals, and naturalised Brazilians.
In a bid to acclimatise, Afghanistan trained for two weeks in Vietnam, said Dastgir. Hit by a lockdown to curb Covid-19 from January to April, Hong Kong travelled to Malaysia and Thailand, said Andersen.
All this is why Stimac said easy games in football ended 50 years ago. If India do it his way, fine. If India do it the way of his predecessor Stephen Constantine which, according to Sunil Chhetri, usually was a long ball from the goalie to the front third and “then we would start”, or any other way, that would be fine too. Because getting to the Asian Cup is “massive”, Jhingan said. Getting there repeatedly is important, Chhetri said last week. “Then you will start getting stronger in the World Cup qualifiers,” said Stimac. The cycle could start on Wednesday.